CHINA is flexing its muscles in the South China Sea, making its vessels visible by purposely switching on tracking signals for long periods of time in a move widely interpreted as asserting Beijing’s sovereignty in the disputed waters – and push out rival claimants.
An analysis undertaken by the Washington-based Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (AMTI) identified Chinese coastguard vessels broadcasting automatic identification system (AIS) signals during patrols of Luconia Shoals, Second Thomas Shoal and the Scarborough Shoal over the past year. All three reef complexes are the subject of territorial disputes with neighbouring states including Malaysia and Taiwan, and in 2015 the Borneo Post reported that a Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessel even threatened to shoot a group of Malaysian fishermen who were trying to fish there.
The AMTI report said: “What really sets the vessels patrolling Luconia, Second Thomas, and Scarborough apart is that it appears they want to be seen.
“Most commercial vessels over 300 tons are required to broadcast AIS for collision avoidance, but military and law enforcement vessels have discretion about when and where to do so.”
CG vessels elsewhere in the South China Sea often do not broadcast AIS or do so only when entering and leaving port.
However, the ones patrolling the three reef complexes in question seem to broadcast much more frequently.
There was at least one ship broadcasting from Luconia on 258 of the last 365 days, 215 days in the case of Second Thomas, and 162 days in the case of Scarborough.
The report concluded: “The pattern of Chinese patrols at these features has grown more consistent in recent years, and especially with the completion of harbour facilities at its bases in the Spratly Islands.
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“There don’t appear to be any other contested areas where CCG presence is so persistent, and where China clearly wants regional counterparts to know they are present.
“Beijing has evidently taken a special interest in Luconia, Second Thomas, and Scarborough Shoals. It seems to be wagering that if it can maintain a semi-permanent CCG presence for long enough, regional states will eventually accede to its de facto control of those areas.
“And if that strategy succeeds at Luconia and Second Thomas (as it arguably already has at Scarborough), it will serve as a compelling blueprint for extending Chinese administration across other reefs and shoals.”
The CCG vessels in question are heavily armed, equipped only with water cannons and small weapons, but they are still significantly bigger than law enforcement or navy vessels belonging to other rival claimants in the region.
The report added: “This makes them ideal for operations that might involve threatening collisions and, if necessary, shouldering other vessels to drive them away without using lethal force.”
China has adopted an increasingly belligerent approach to patrolling the South China Seas in recent years, coupled with building numerous military fortifications on uninhabited islands there, and foreign vessels using the waterway have triggered some tense stand-offs.
Collin Koh, a research fellow with the Maritime Security Programme at the S Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore, told the South China Morning Post: “The mere fact that these ships are out there, openly broadcasting AIS signals, could have a debilitating effect on non-state actors, especially fishermen of those countries who usually operate in their exclusive economic zones – particularly when they do not enjoy or expect any effective protection from their governments’ maritime agencies.
“That will certainly have the effect of either scaring away the other claimant states’ fishermen or ensuring they toe China’s line.”
Speaking last week, Frans-Paul van der Putten, a senior research fellow at the Clingendael Institute, a Netherlands-based think tank, said: “Until a few years ago, European countries preferred to keep a low profile on regional security issues in East Asia, but under the present circumstances there is a new urgency to be involved.
“Sending warships to the South China Sea can provide European governments with more leverage when it comes to dealing with the US and China on geopolitical matters closer to home.
“Europe has long been accustomed to being situated between two great powers – the United States and Russia – but increasingly it is the US-China relationship that defines Europe’s geopolitical position.
“This creates new dilemmas for European governments, that are under increasing pressure to choose sides.”